How to recruit rock star unpaid interns, with Stephen Woessner.

Episode 425

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Stephen is the CEO of Predictive ROI and the host of the Onward Nation podcast. He is the author of two bestselling books, speaker, trainer, and his digital marketing insights have been featured in SUCCESS, Entrepreneur, The Washington Post, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, and other media.


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Good Morning Onward Nation…I’m Stephen Woessner and welcome to this week’s solocast…Episode 425.

Today, we are going to build upon the mentorship lessons, strategies, and tactics we studied together last week. I firmly believe that as a leader — mentorship — should be one of your most vital priorities. And it is through your consistent and thoughtful mentorship — that you will be able to create the culture of high-performance, of accountability, of proactivity — a culture that reflects your core values.

So if mentorship is truly a critical skill for any business owner to make mastery a vital priority — are there others?

And yes, I would argue that recruiting, interviewing, onboarding, and preparing your employees is equally as vital. As Jim Collins masterfully wrote in his book, “Good to Great,” we must have the right people sitting in the right seats on the right bus. If we don’t — no amount of mentorship you provide will be overcome the challenge of misalignment within your team. And part of being an excellent mentor is showing your team how and why making adjustments within the team is critical for the overall health and performance of your team.

But — where should you go to recruit your next rock star employees? Where can you find the A-players that we all want to have as part our respective teams?

And it may surprise you — when I recommend that you hire “A Players” — I don’t mean adding several high salaried or highly commissioned positions to your team. Instead, I am referring to the incredible and very realistic opportunity of you hiring “A Players” who also happen to be unpaid interns.

Yes, I did say unpaid interns.

Here at Predictive ROI…we have started calling it “Building our team through the draft.” Just like the great NFL teams do — they take their time — they look for the best talent in the draft — while realizing they need to have the right onboarding system in place to marinate their rookie players in the culture of the team, the values of the organization, and the vision for the future.

We do the same thing at Predictive ROI.

We have built an outstanding internship program and have provided over 22 unpaid internships over the last several years to students in their senior year of study at Purdue, Duke, Ohio State, University of South Florida, University of Northern Iowa, and many other universities throughout the country.

So…I decided to focus today’s solocast on how you can use the recipe we have created so you can recruit rock star interns to scale your team.

Why do I think this is important to share?

Because I often have conversations with business owners who don’t believe it is possible — that they will actually find interns with exceptional talent, work ethic, and a burning desire to learn. When the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

I recently had a conversation with a marketing manager inside a company — and as is typical — the manager was responsible for everything — new content development, generating qualified leads, optimizing content, email campaigns, print collaterals materials, trade show analysis, trade show displays, PPC campaigns, coordinating all of the in-house experts for any technical writing, the blog, video production, and the dizzying list went on and on.

My word.

Toward the end of our first day together — I asked him if he had access to any interns who could provide some additional production capacity and support so he could focus more of his time toward his most vital priorities.

He quickly said no — but then went on to share some insights about their corporate culture, its view of interns, and actually needing permission to hire a full-time employee even if he only wanted to hire an intern — because they wouldn’t hire an intern unless there was a pathway to employment.

And since their operating budget was tight — no funds were available for recruiting and then paying interns.

So I asked… “What about unpaid interns?”

I then received the reaction that I have become very used to seeing or hearing when I mention unpaid internships.

A typical reaction sounds like this… “Unpaid interns? I bet you’re only be able to recruit the unmotivated…the students who are just looking to check the box off the list…they are there to do the bare minimum…and nothing more, right?”

And I suspect that has been the actual experience for most companies.

However, our experience at Predictive ROI has been a remarkable 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

Our recipe for recruiting rock star interns is outstanding and I am going to use today’s solocast to share it with you so you can apply it right away.

But before I do…I want to take this opportunity to pull back the green curtain and take you behind the scenes so you can meet some of the rock star members of our Predictive ROI team who pull all the levers regarding the day-to-day production behind Onward Nation as well as the 20 other podcasts we produce for clients.

So for Onward Nation…let me introduce you first to Katherine Bartlett — yay, Katherine! Katherine is our director of content marketing and the wizard behind all of our episodes — how they sound — and how they look on social media. She also runs point on Predictive ROI marketing and promotional work. Anything audio and visual related is all orchestrated by Katherine.

Katherine began her career at Predictive ROI as an unpaid intern. She was one of those people who raised her hand and said — “Um, I know that I am only required to do 10 hours per week for this internship. But, could I do more?” And our response was…oh my…yes, please. During her internship, Katherine was responsible and demonstrated leadership potential that as an unpaid intern — she managed 6 other unpaid interns. Yep, she is that good!

When her internship was complete…we transitioned Katherine to what we call “Super Intern” during her final semester at the University of Northern Iowa. She received a small stipend of compensation while she focused on finishing her education.

And when she graduated, she became a full time salaried employee. Katherine is a rock star!

Then there is Louie Schuth…who is in-charge of all our show notes, email campaigns, blog posts, our Twitter strategy, and LinkedIn articles.

Louie is an amazing writer and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Louie finished his unpaid internship and super internship last summer and just celebrated his 6-month anniversary as a full time member of our team.

We are thrilled to have Louie as a member of our team…because he and Katherine are cut from the exact same cloth of — “Yes, please — can I do more?”

We started Louie off with a variety of writing projects and he quickly excelled. And then he asked if he could allocate a portion of his time to WordPress and managing some of our websites.

Uh, yes please!

And he excelled there, too.

And Louie is the one who stays up late with me Tuesday nights before my solocasts air to make sure the show notes and audio file are set correctly.

Then there is the trailblazer…Jessica Zickert. Jessica finished her unpaid internship in December and is now working to complete her super internship, which will end in April when she scales to a full-time member of our team. Jessica has taken over the day-to-day editing and production of all of our Onward Nation episodes as well as assisting Katherine whenever there is a need…and…Jessica is an exceptional graphic designer.

Jessica is a rock star — just like Katherine and Louie.

And last but not least…I’d like to introduce you to Erik Jensen, our vice president of client services for Predictive ROI. He oversees our entire production team and he is now my business partner at Predictive.

I first met Erik while I was a part of the academic staff at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. I served at the Small Business Development Center on campus. One day, the chair of our marketing department suggested to Erik that he come see me regarding a business plan that Erik and his business partner were developing for a competition at Duke University. We met and I was blown away by his professionalism and grasp of so much detail.

Later that night — I said to my wife, “Wow…this guy is amazing — I hope some day there is an opportunity to work together on something.”

Years later…Erik became our first intern at Predictive ROI…he then became full time employee #3 as an associate…we then promoted him to engagement manager…then the leadership team…then vice president of client services.

Erik helped set the standard by which we evaluate and measure all interns.

He invested a full-time schedule toward his internship even though it wasn’t required. And that is the type of heart you are looking for, Onward Nation, in your interns.

So with that…I am going to share the complete recipe for how we recruit rock star candidates to our unpaid internship program.

Please note:

We only take students in their senior year of school. We have had positive experiences with juniors (but that is often not the case) and we have had positive experiences with interns post graduation (but that is often not the case as well).

So we decided to focus on seniors and have found them to be the most motivated, eager to learn, and hungry to gain experience because graduation is looming and so is their job search.

Ingredient #1: Define your culture with your leadership team, employees, and post a page on your website for candidates to study.

My leadership team, which consists of Katherine and Erik who I introduced you to a few minutes ago, have been studying the book Traction by Gino Wickman. Excellent book — and within one of the first chapters in the book — Gino talks about why mission, purpose, and values are so important — and how — a leader ought to go about creating and documenting it. We worked through the process and realized the following describes what we value here at Predictive ROI.

  • Proactivity
  • No ego in anything we do
  • Learning goes both ways
  • Consistent self-improvements
  • Seek first to understand
  • Create win-win-win relationships
  • We value everyone
  • We are persistent

It is important for you to share your values, talk about them often, so you are constantly marinating your team in the culture of your organization. And the perfect time to start that with your team — is — when they are interns and wanting to learn everything they can about your company.

Ingredient #2: write a position description that is in-line with your culture and post on your website.

Go here for an example:

Ingredient #3: post testimonials / social proof on your website because “A-Players” want to work with other “A-Players” — or — where other “A-Players” have worked.

“The team at Predictive ROI is incredible. They are so talented and passionate about this industry, and that really makes such a difference. I feel like I have learned much more through this internship than I ever expected. With every step of the way, I felt involved in the process and that my thoughts and ideas mattered. Through the help of some pretty great mentors, I was able to not only learn more about this industry, but was able to apply what I was learning first-hand.” — Whitney Puent

“There’s one word that comes to mind when looking to describe the Predictive ROI internship: special. Predictive ROI gives you the opportunity to do great work that has an impact. But, more importantly, at Predictive ROI you work with the greatest team you could ever ask for, a team that will have your back and guide you so that you’re better prepared for the working world, and better prepared for life. If you’re willing to put in the hard work, don’t think twice about applying for an internship with Predictive ROI. You won’t regret it.” — Louie Schuth

“Applying for an internship with Predictive ROI was the best decision I’ve made in a long time. Going into my final semester of college, I knew I wanted an internship that would allow me to hone and develop my professional skills by making impactful contributions within an organization. An internship with Predictive ROI gives you exactly that. At Predictive ROI, you are given the opportunity to work with an unbelievable team that will teach you the the tools and skills needed to be successful in your career.” — Alex Krupski

Ingredient #4: weed out B and C players by sending a pre-qualifying email with challenging thought provoking questions to each candidate.

We send the following email immediately after receiving someone’s application / resume:

[Candidate’s First Name]…thank you for your interest in our internship!

As the first step in our process…please review the following questions and email us back your thoughts for each.

Your answers to each question will give our team an opportunity to: 1) understand how we can create the right internship experience for you and ensure you learn everything you want to learn, 2) evaluate your written communication skills, and 3) assess your depth of interest in joining our team.

1. Please introduce yourself (beyond what we can learn by reading your resume) and why our internship is of interest to you.

2. Please describe the top three things you would like to learn during this internship. And we encourage you to be as specific as possible.

3. Tell us about your digital marketing experience up to this point (and if it is zero…that is okay).

4. Things we cannot teach are work ethic, commitment to teammates, integrity, and excellence. Please share an example of when you consistently demonstrated excellence in your work.

5. Please share an example of when you demonstrated integrity.

6. What are the attributes or qualities you look for in teammates?

7. How can we help support your growth and development during this internship?

This is my direct email address — please feel free to reply here.

We look forward to talking with you.

Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns.

Sincerely Yours,

Stephen Woessner
Host of The Onward Nation Podcast
CEO of Predictive ROI

Ingredient #5: conduct initial call to assess cultural fit and subject matter expertise deep dive

If the answers provided back are at our standard of excellence — I will schedule a subject matter expertise-focused phone call in order to assess:

1) cultural fit
2) depth of current knowledge.

Their current knowledge is not a deal breaker because we train and teach all we do — but it is good to have a baseline. I also make a decision — along with the candidate — on whether or not there is a good enough of a fit to move on.

Ingredient #6: conduct team interview with the candidate.

Team interview with the candidate, Katherine (former intern now our director of content marketing), Erik (former intern now our vp of client services and co-owner), Alex Krupski (former intern and now our SEO and systems specialist), and me.

Our focus during this interview is to answer any questions from the candidate about Predictive, the internship, and where the company is headed.

And we ask a lot of questions about teamwork, proactivity, independent working / thinking, etc.

Ingredient #7: make a go or no go decision — then send “Congratulations” email

Good Morning [Candidate’s First Name]…thank you again for your time yesterday afternoon!

I am excited to give you a very warm welcome to the Predictive ROI team.

Katherine, Erik, Alex, and I thoroughly enjoyed our time with you yesterday and look forward to having your contribution to the work we are all doing.

I am preparing a formal acceptance letter that will detail initial responsibilities, internship duration, etc. I will email it to you on Friday for your review and approval.

But at this point…would Monday be a good start date for you?

And would you be able to attend our 8:45 am kick-start meeting via Zoom?

Onward with gusto!

Ingredient #8: kick-off the semester long internship.

You need to treat your unpaid interns exactly as full-time members of your team and you will get a higher level of production and proactivity. And because we do that — our full time…including interns…are all held to the same standards of excellence — and we ensure excellence with a daily and weekly rhythm of accountability.

For example…we have a daily kick-start meeting at 8:45 am Monday through Friday where each person answers four questions:

  1. My three most vital priorities for the day are…
  2. What I didn’t get done yesterday but should have (not a judgement question — but an ask for teamwork)
  3. This is where I need some help
  4. I do / don’t have available time today

Take vital projects off your plate and give them to your interns — not filing projects — put them on the front lines with meaningful work. They will love you for it if you do.

You will recruit A Players — rock star unpaid interns — just like Predictive ROI and Onward Nation has if you apply these 8 ingredients.

So with that said…

I want to say again, thank you for taking the time to be here with me today. It is an honor to have you here — thank you for tuning in — your time is sacred and I am delighted you chose this episode to be what you listen to, study, and take with you on your morning run, or maybe Onward Nation has become part of your daily commute, or in some other way has become part of your morning routine.

However our daily podcast fits into your daily routine — I want you to know how much I appreciate you sharing some of your invaluable 86,400 seconds you have in your day with me and the strategies we learn and share each day from today’s top business owners.

And please continue to let me know what you think of Onward Nation…good or bad…I always want your feedback. My direct email address is [email protected] — and yes — that is my actual Inbox. No fancy filters or filing system and I read and reply to every single email.

So please let me know how you think we are doing. I look forward to hearing from you.

We will be back tomorrow with an encore interview with John Dwyer — where he will take you behind the Million Dollar wheel — a promotional strategy he created for one of his clients that added tremendous growth to their business. JD is off the charts amazing just like he was back in Episode 242. You will not want to miss JD’s encore.

Until then, onward with gusto!

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